*This article was originally published by Fair Observer.
Stephen Chan | Bernard Henri Levy, the French intellectual and provocateur, recently said that, in the wake of the US withdrawal into itself, the world stage would feature five empires. These would be Russia, Iran, Turkey, Islamic extremism and the commercial might of China.
Seen from Europe, it is a warning of a new order as the continent certainly withdraws into itself and into its component parts, no longer offering even the simulacrum of a united power on the world stage. But Levy is, as ever, seeking to make a point — not demonstrate an actual argument — and it is far from clear in the new volatility of US foreign policy as to whether America will, after all, depart the world stage.
If the US does remain a world player, Levy is right in saying it will face five empires. Europe will not be able to help. But the five empires are in fact one alliance (Russia and Iran), one confessional balance of power (Iran and Sunni extremism), one confused effort to effect two balances of power (Turkey and Russia, Turkey and Islamic extremism), and only China will have a largely unconditional omni-presence. The world will be much more complex than Levy imagines.
As for the US withdrawal — led by a president whom Levy described in January as a “swineherd” — the saber rattling of the Easter period (a battle fleet seemingly deployed against North Korea, a cruise missile attack on Syria, a huge bomb dropped on Islamic State positions in Afghanistan and words of warning to Iran) was probably due to Rex Tillerson finally trying to assert himself as secretary of state.
But none of these actions or warnings has a discernible follow-through. A series of sporadic shows of strength is not a foreign policy and, in any case, not even the US at its height could realistically engage in sustained hostilities with North Korea, Iran, Syria and the Islamic State (IS) all at once. And, of course, notwithstanding the sub-atomic bomb spectacle of the MOAB bomb, dropped on an already largely-defeated IS in Afghanistan, the Russians have a larger bomb, but President Vladimir Putin is too wise to enter a “my bomb is bigger than your bomb” show of strength.
The five Empires
But what about the complexities I alluded to, the alliance and balances that muddy the image of five distinct empires?
The first thing that should be said is that neither Russia nor China — but particularly not Russia — would tolerate any attack on Iran. The danger in Secretary Tillerson’s pugnacious words is to drive Iranian voters toward hardline presidential candidates, and undermine the electoral chances of President Hassan Rouhani — at a stroke making Iran more dangerous by saying it is more dangerous.
The accusation that Iran is a prime exporter of terrorism is simply untrue outside the power struggles of the Middle East. Iran has never attacked the US. But 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi. Iran simply gets in the way of Saudi Arabia, as it seeks to marginalize Shia communities and polities. And despite very clear Saudi sponsorship of much Sunni extremism within and outside the Middle East, the US remains an ally of the kingdom that, right now, has it successfully both ways: its government in a close relationship with the US, and its oligarchs, influenced by hardline clerics, finance efforts to attack US interests.
Tillerson’s argument with Iran is an argument merely in support of Saudi Arabia. Insofar as Saudi Arabia is an actual sponsor of global terrorism, the clerical establishment there is rubbing its hands in glee at Tillerson’s remarks.
Russia needs Iran as an ally. It gives it purchase and foothold in the Middle East, exactly as Saudi Arabia does for the US. The ravaged Syria provides none of the stability of alliance that Iran does.
But Turkey seeks both to be an ally of sorts with Iran, and has interests in the Turkic territories of Russia. And although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made Turkey more “Islamic,” he has done so problematically and his cities are still the target of extremist attacks. In some ways, far from being the empire Erdogan might want — some sort of re-run of the Ottoman Empire, but in terms of influence rather than conquest — Turkey might actually prove to be the tinderbox of the region. It is a curious region, abutting onto Iran and Russia on the one hand and Europe on the other. If Erdogan overreaches himself, the consequences of being a failed empire will be the first disaster of Levy’s brave new world.
Will Sunni extremism continue as if itself an empire? Yes. This genie is out of the bottle now. It will take its fight throughout Europe, into China, against the Shia and make the US relationship with Saudi Arabia increasingly problematic. Not an empire with its own land mass — although IS tried that — but the invisible empire of a militant umma, the homeland that spreads into the homelands of all others, the religious fifth column of the 21st century, which the West has never met by seeking to understand it and, without understanding, there can never be negotiation.
This leaves Russia in danger of being exposed on too many flanks. There is no money in Putin’s treasury. He fights Sunni Islam, defends Syria, is allied with Iran, wages war with Ukraine, rivals Turkey in the Transcaucasian Turkic republics, and is thankful it no longer has a deep quarrel with China. Certainly, its turn to cyber-warfare and cyber-strength is a master-stroke of a one-time superpower that cannot afford to be that type of superpower again. Its combination of superb public relations, built around its president, and cyber-penetration makes it an empire with electronic reach.
As is China. Its electronic reach and capacity, however, is backed up by money. A lot of it. Temporary economic slowdowns do not mean its outreach and foreign capacity is in any way compromised. Like the Islamic umma, it doesn’t have to conquer. Its economic might is simply everywhere — from ownership of US toxic debt, to sewing the clothes for Armani, to producing more laptops and graduating more electronic engineers than anyone else. China is in every shopping mall in every part of the world. Its troops are almost nowhere outside China. Its nuclear arsenal is modest. It simply waits for the US to implode or waste away — or walk away from the world stage when, at a moment to come (and China is confident it will come), President Donald Trump is disgusted with his own foreign policy mistakes.
Beijing looks beyond Levy — to a time of one empire, itself, and many emirates, of which the US will be one. Except that even China will still have to grapple with Sunni Islam. And we shall all be looking longingly at the cultured and civilized Shia Islam of Iran, wishing we had encouraged rather than excoriated it. Perhaps one day it will be Beijing and Persepolis once again. And both cultures share the same dragon in their mythologies.
*This article was originally published by Fair Observer.